Fires fuelled by an unprecedented drought are ravaging hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in the northeastern province of Corrientes, causing heavy economic losses and serious environmental damage, according to government officials, farmers and environmentalists.
The latest report from Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), dated February 7, estimated the area of land affected to be 520,000 hectares of pasture and crops – approximately six percent of the province's territory, or an area equivalent to Serbia.
The fires are advancing every day, consuming thousands of hectares of land, but heavy smoke is preventing up-to-date satellite measurements from being taken.
For now, no casualties have yet been reported by locals.
The fires “are burning at a rate of 20,000 hectares per day, now there must be a total of 700,000 hectares,” said Nicolas Carlino of the Coninagro producers' association.
“The smoke has been making it difficult for satellites to observe [and measure] for a week. There is no historical precedent," he added.
The organisation estimated on Tuesday that fields of yerba mate worth at least US$4.2 million (official exchange rate) have been destroyed, along with US$44.6 million of rice crops. At least 70,000 heads of cattle have been killed, it added.
The National Fire Management Service reported on Wednesday that six large fires were active in Curuzú Cuatiá, Concepción, San Miguel, Ituzaingó, Santo Tomé, Loreto and Bella Vista, with only one already contained, in Mercedes.
The National Government has sent four hydrant planes, two helicopters and a hundred brigadiers to Corrientes, according to a statement, with support from the Army and the Air Force already deployed. Civil defence units and local firefighters, with the help of local people and producers, have been fighting the spread of the fire bravely.
The drought began in mid-November, according to officials, with fires starting in December. Corrientes Province, located between the Paraná and Uruguay rivers, is currently recording rainfall of less than 10 to 15 millimetres (the average for the season is up to 200 millimetres) and a relative humidity of 15 percent, when the usual would be around 70 percent, Carlino said.
The National Meteorological Service forecasts some light rains in the province, but not until next Sunday. The provincial capital has been intermittently covered by smoke clouds since early January, local media have reported.
The fires are also threatening the Iberá marshes, an area of 12,000 square kilometres of marshes and lagoons that is home to caimans, amphibians, ophidians, iguanas and 350 species of birds, local ecologist Luis Martínez told the AFP news agency.
"It is a severe impact, caused by deforestation, desertification and poor land use, which is now combined with a new rainfall regime caused by climate change," Martínez said.
He attributes the fires to the "imprudence" of individuals that burn pastures to renew the land or even to control possible fires.
"There are no natural fires, as the firefighters and locals say," he said.
Corrientes has already lost 60 percent of its wetlands, 40 percent of its grasslands and some 23,000 hectares of native forests, Martínez estimated.
The vast majority of wild animals will be affected in some way and some species of birds and reptiles will be on the verge of extinction as a result of the crisis, he said.